The lack of demonstrated empathy is possibly the most dysfunctional aspect of Aspergers and High Functioning Autism. Children, teens, and even adults with this disorder experience difficulties in basic elements of social interaction, which may include:
- impaired nonverbal behaviors (e.g., eye contact, facial expression, posture, gesture)
- lack of social or emotional reciprocity (e.g., social "games," give-and-take dynamics)
- failure to seek shared enjoyments or achievements with others (e.g., showing others objects of interest)
- failure to develop friendships
Empathy is one of the foundational moral emotions. It is linked to moral action. It’s a feeling that compels individuals to act compassionately while reasoning alone might not. Kids who don’t develop empathy can become callous grown-ups, oblivious to the hurt and pain they leave in their wake.
Empathy is not something that matures on its own—it must be learned. Moms and dads play an important role in helping their Aspergers kids acquire empathy by guiding them toward it from infancy, by acting as an “emotion coach,” and by setting an example of empathetic behavior.
While some Aspergers kids seem to develop empathy more naturally than others, all young people with this disorder need help for this skill to grow. Moms and dads should begin teaching them as early as possible. Kids as young as 18 months can be taught empathy. In fact, some experts say that kids display empathetic responses as early as infancy. Although it may take many years for a youngster’s empathy to mature, starting “empathy training” early does two important things: (a) it creates a seamless transition from understanding verbal instructions to later being able to act, and (b) it gets moms and dads into the habit of noticing teaching moments and seizing them.
Parents with children on the spectrum will need to teach them to “put themselves in some else’s shoes” (so to speak), because this is not a skill that comes naturally to them. Below are the methods to employ in order to achieve this task:
1. Aspergers children are more likely to show empathic concern for others if they have moms and dads who help them cope with negative emotions in an empathetic, problem-solving-oriented way.
2. Aspergers children may benefit from explicit coaching. In one study, three autistic children watched a grown-up describe how he figured out what another character would think and do next (e.g., “These footprints are a clue. He’ll follow these footprints to the treasure chest and open it up”). The strategy helped these children solve similar problems on their own.
3. Be empathetic yourself in your parenting. While having patience with small kids can be difficult, it’s important to stay as calm as you can when they misbehave. If your youngster does something you don’t like, it’s not helpful to yell. That teaches them that yelling is an acceptable way to handle feelings.
4. Create an open atmosphere in your home so that your kids feel welcome to talk about their experiences, both positive and negative. As they talk to you, behave empathetically by working to understand their feelings, expressing that understanding to them, and by giving them nonverbal cues (e.g., leaning in and nodding) that say you are actively listening.
5. Employ role-playing games. In one study, researchers asked young medical students to simulate the difficulties of old age. For example, students wore goggles covered with transparent tape to simulate the effects of cataracts. To experience poor motor control, the students wore heavy rubber gloves. After the experiment, the students showed greater empathy towards the elderly.
6. Encourage older kids to become tutors or mentors. Tutors learn that they can’t help very well unless they first learn about the needs and feelings of those they tutor.
7. Help your Aspergers son or daughter to learn about emotions in general. Young kids feel all of the emotions that grown-ups feel (e.g., frustration, disappointment, sadness, etc.), but they lack experience identifying, labeling, and managing those feelings. When moms and dads help their Aspergers kids name what they feel, these kids can more easily make sense of their emotional world.
8. Help children develop a sense of morality that depends on internal self-control, not on rewards or punishments. Aspergers children are capable of being spontaneously helpful and empathetic. But studies have shown that children become less likely to help others if they are given material rewards for doing so. Other studies have shown that children are more likely to develop an internal sense of right and wrong if they are raised with authoritative discipline (i.e., an approach that emphasizes rational explanations and moral consequences, not arbitrary rules and heavy-handed punishments).
9. Help children explore other roles and perspectives. Empathy involves “perspective-taking” (i.e., what the world is like when experienced from another person’s point of view). Stories from books or television are opportunities for children to practice perspective-taking skills. What do the characters think, believe, want, or feel? And how do we know it? When parent and child discuss these questions, children may learn a lot about the way that other people’s minds work. Studies show a link between such family conversations and kid’s performance on perspective-taking tasks.
10. Helping kids develop empathy through service. Through bringing relief to someone who is suffering, kids can come to understand the depths of that suffering. For example, they can hand out blankets and hot tea to homeless families on a particularly cold winter's day, or they can help a recently widowed neighbor by raking her yard or taking her trashcans out. By performing acts of kindness, whether at school, in the family or in the community, kids can't help but think about the hard luck of those they help. When they do, they're sure to think about how it would feel to be in a similar situation.
11. Moms and dads who are “mind-minded” treat their children as individuals with minds of their own. They also talk to their kids about emotional and mental states, and discuss the ways that our beliefs, desires, and emotions motivate behavior.
12. Point out to your Aspergers youngster both similarities and differences between him and other kids. Understanding the ways that others are like him can help him behave empathetically. Knowing that others are different helps him perceive that what helps one person feel better might not help another person.
13. Remember that Aspergers children are more likely to develop a strong sense of empathy when their own emotional needs are being met at home.
14. Search for opportunities to model empathetic feelings for other people. By modeling empathic behavior and pointing out situations that call for empathy, moms and dads can generate empathetic responses in their children (e.g., if you and your youngster see someone being victimized on a television show, talk with your youngster about how that person must feel).
15. Show children how to “make a face” while they try to imagine how someone else feels. Studies show that simply “going through the motions” of making a facial expression can make us experience the associated emotion. We can “boost” our empathic powers by imitating the facial expressions of people we want to empathize with.
16. Teach children to follow the motto, "If it feels wrong inside, it's good for no one." This helps them keep their motives sincere and pure.
17. Teach your kids about people who are models of empathy (e.g., Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, etc.).
18. Teaching kids empathy by not criticizing the unfortunate. Criticizing people with imperfections sends our kids a message that the shortcomings of others are intentional and exclusive to everyone else but us. They learn to criticize others for not correcting those flaws, even when the flaws can't be changed, and to react negatively to imperfect people rather than respond with empathy and compassion.
19. Use "I messages" to teach empathy. When we use "I messages," we send a loud and clear signal: "Understand how I'm feeling right now, please!" For example, a comment like, "I get frustrated when someone walks on my freshly mopped floor with muddy shoes," may jump-start some internal dialogue that makes our kids consider what we are going through and what they should do to make things better.
20. When Aspergers children have secure attachment relationships (i.e., they can count on their caregivers for emotional and physical support), they are more likely to show empathy and offer help to other children in distress.
Empathy is one of the greatest lessons we can teach to our Aspergers kids, because it helps them see the good in those around them. If we work hard to raise empathetic kids, they'll develop a sense of inner strength that will protect them against outside influences that pressure them to make the wrong choices.